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From gamer to racer – meet a future star

  1. On the weekend that Lewis Hamilton struck out a flare for McLaren at the Hungarian Grand Prix with an imperious, dominating charge to take the win, 845 miles away one of his biggest fans in the world was contemplating a very different kind of race result.

    “The rear downforce was incredible, and the car had a very neutral balance. At one point during my stint, I had the leader behind me for 45 minutes. The marshals started waving the blue flags at first to tell me to let him pass, but they stopped after five laps because he wasn’t gaining on me.”

    Words: Vijay Pattni
    Photos: ©Nissan-Racing

  2. These are the words of Jann Mardenborough. You might recognise his name, but if you don’t, you should familiarise yourelf with it soon: he is of course, the 2011 winner of Nissan’s rather astonishing ‘GT Academy’, and rising wunderkind in the Sportscar racing circuit. And if his Spa sentiments feel peppered by the vocabulary of a hardened, died-in-the-wool racing driver, consider this: last year, Jann hadn’t even competed in a GT race.

    We’re sitting in his plush motorhome at the 24hrs of Spa - the fourth round of the Blancpain Endurance series, itself a continuation of GT1 - and Jann’s weekend has come to a crushing, crippling halt just two hours into the race.

  3. “On our race pace alone we were pumping in top ten times - we started in 41st position and at the end of my stint we were 20th - but then I handed it over to Chris (Ward) and the car had an electrical problem. It just wouldn’t start. We got it going but it got stranded on track and here at Spa, if the recovery truck can’t get to you, that’s the end of your race.”

    He is disarmingly positive about the experience, considering that had his team’s Nissan GT-R continued that pace (and survived the rain), they were poised for a very lofty finish. “I think I passed 15 cars on track. That alone tells us something is going right.”

  4. Quite. It’s going right for Jann’s career too, mind. The GT Academy - Nissan and Sony’s successful experiment at turning bedroom gamers into bona-fide GT stars - has ground and polished his innate ability into something tangible: points. Bob Neville, his team manager and boss at RJN Motorsports, is unequivocal about the young man’s stratospheric rise in the sportscar world.

    “Jann’s performance in such a short space of time can only be described as incredible really,” Bob says. Despite his car having bowed out with electrical gremlins, Bob’s calm demeanour speaks volumes about the kind of ambience his considerable experience brings to his young protégé. He once ran Johnny Herbert, you know.

  5. And it’s something that has certainly made an impression on the young Mr Mardenborough. “There’s no pressure on me from the team,” he says, with the wisdom of a veteran. “They certainly have expectations, but I myself have very high standards. It’s bad, and sometimes it can hurt me. For example I’d get out of the car, say after I’ve done a good stint but made a couple of mistakes, I’d be furious with myself.” TG can testify to this: after his stint - where he kept the race leader at bay don’t forget - he looked furious, at himself, lamenting a couple of minor lapses in concentration he made. “I’ll say I had a good stint but mention my mistakes afterwards, and sometimes that can be bad. I’ve been told ‘positive before negative’, and I’ve been using that method, but it’s hard.”

  6. His difficulty is brought into sharp focus when you consider that he’s only been racing professionally for a very short time - and very nearly would have never appeared on the sportscar radar had it not been for his prowess as a PlayStation thumbsmith. “If GT Academy wasn’t here, I don’t think I would have got into motorsport, because the money alone is, well…” He makes a gesture to suggest something excessive. “It all comes back to money. To fund a racing car - even a small one like a Ginetta junior car - you’re talking thousands and thousands of pounds. You’ve got to have resources, you’ve got to have mechanics, everything.” He puts up his hands. “No, no way, it’s too much. Maybe I would have done a few track days later on in my life after I finished university, but it definitely wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

  7. Which, perversely, actually works in his favour. Because having no background in motorsport barring late night PS3 duels - and as he himself proclaims - “I came to race with no preconceptions. I came like a clean slate.” His driving mentors during GT Academy would sit him down after every session and take him through the circuit, corner by corner, assessing him and the car’s progress. “We’d sit down with a sheet of paper with the circuit drawn on it, and there’d be three boxes by each corner - one for ‘turn in’, one for ‘mid corner’, one for ‘exit’. I’d have to write -1 to -5 if it was understeer, 0 if it was ok, and +1 to +5 if there was oversteer.”

    This little exercise reveals much about Jann’s psychology: “It helped me a lot because you’d realise what you’re doing as a driver: is it the car that needs to be changed? It’s very easy to fall into the trap when you’re a racing driver of blaming the car for everything, but a lot of the time it’s down to the driver. I certainly take that on board.”

  8. Of course, sometimes the blame could be put squarely at the door of Mother Nature herself, like when the universe decided to turn on the taps at Spa - a place Jann loves (“it’s magical. It’s just trees and lines of people having barbeques and you can just smell it”) - but his response again reveals another interesting insight into how he thinks. “I enjoy driving in the wet. We had mentors at the Academy teaching us ‘wet lines’ etc, and what you should do with the steering wheel. I like it because there’s more driver input.” He pauses to reflect. “It’s more about the driver, less about the car. I like that because it levels the playing field.”

  9. TG takes a second to reflect also: here he is, sitting at one of the greatest and oldest circuits on the planet talking nitty gritty racecraft after showing genuine pace - a far, far cry from just a couple of years ago when this life was beyond his wildest dreams. “When I was 17 or 18 and I was in the house with my parents, if there was someone ringing on the house phone and I didn’t know who it was I wouldn’t answer it. I was afraid. If I had an injury for a Sunday football match, I was afraid to ring up my coach. I’d even avoid answering the front door if I didn’t know who it was. I’ve come a long way, mentally I feel much more rounded.”

  10. Just how far this likeable, shy teenager from Cardiff has come could also be measured by a recent excursion to Russia; despite the hardened racer who sits before us, there still lingers a small element of the little boy who loves racing. At the mention of his idol, he lights up like a Christmas tree. “For the past five years or so, I’ve looked up to Lewis Hamilton. I met him a week ago in Moscow, actually. I was over there for the Russian GT Academy, and he was there and somehow I managed to meet him. It was a massive surprise - it was amazing, I was chatting to him like he was an old friend.”

    He’s gushing now. “What was even more cool was that Lewis knew who I was. When he told me he’d heard of me and of the GT Academy, my mouth just dropped to the floor. One of the best moments of my life.” Boy done good.

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